The Tapes: Nixon's Long, Dark Shadow
By Robert Parry
Perhaps more than any U.S. politician, Richard Nixon influenced the course
and tone of the Cold War, from the earliest stirring of the McCarthy era
through the divisive war in Vietnam to Watergate and, less visibly, through
the two decades afterwards as a secret adviser to presidents. Certainly,
few leaders have cast as long and as dark a shadow on his times, as did
Despite a 20-year campaign to rehabilitate Nixon's image, newly published
tape-recordings from Nixon's White House years have left little doubt about
the cynical and criminal nature of his administration. The tape transcripts,
published in Stanley I. Kutler's new book, Abuse of Power, cover
more than 200 hours of Nixon's Oval Office discussions about Watergate and
other political crimes.
Most mainstream press accounts have expressed shock about the contents, but
have focused on Nixon's psychological state: why he didn't destroy the tapes
[The Washington Post, Oct. 30, 1997] and how paranoid the president
was about enemies who were "after me" [The New York Times, Oct. 31,
But all agree that the tape recordings destroyed any doubt about Nixon's
guilt in both setting up the criminal "Plumbers" operation and in
obstructing justice after five burglars from that operation were arrested
on June 17, 1972, inside the Democratic National Committee headquarters in
the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C.
On the tapes, Nixon is caught commissioning the Plumbers as retaliation for
the 1971 publication of the secret Pentagon Papers history of the Vietnam
War. He also discusses hush money for the Watergate burglars, thanks a
Greek-American businessman for secret cash, agrees to keep a friendly U.S.
ambassador in Athens, monitors a White House political slush fund, and
oversees day-to-day cover-up strategies.
But the tapes offer insights, as well, into two controversial gambits from
Nixon's earlier political life, events that were the past to Nixon's
Watergate prologue: the Alger Hiss case in 1948 and a Republican scheme to
derail Vietnam peace talks in 1968. Both events contributed to Nixon's
pugnacious political style that finally came a cropper in the Watergate
scandal. But neither has received much attention amid the head-shaking over
Nixon flashed back to the Hiss case on July 1, 1971, while venting anger
over the publication of the Pentagon Papers. In a lecture to chief of staff
H.R. Haldeman and national security adviser Henry Kissinger, Nixon
criticized Attorney General John Mitchell for worrying about what "is
technically correct" in punishing those involved. Nixon wanted a more
ruthless offensive which would include counter-leaks to discredit former
Pentagon official Daniel Ellsberg and others connected to the publication.
Nixon saw information the way others see weapons.
"Thank God I leaked to the press [during the Hiss controversy]," Nixon
declared. "[In the Pentagon Papers release,] we're up against an enemy, a
conspiracy. They're using any means. We are going to use any means. Is that
clear? Did they get the Brookings Institute raided last night? No. Get it
done. I want it done. I want the Brookings Institute safe cleaned out and
have it cleaned out in a way that makes somebody else [responsible]."
Nixon then reminisced about how he used unchecked documents -- the so-called
Pumpkin Papers -- to stampede a federal grand jury in New York into
indicting Hiss, a former State Department official from Franklin Roosevelt's
New Deal years. At the time, in fall 1948, the Cold War was in its infancy,
the McCarthy era of anti-communist black lists was just beginning and Nixon's
young political career hung in the balance.
As a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Nixon had
championed charges by an ex-communist named Whitaker Chambers that Hiss had
been a secret Communist Party member. Hiss had denied the charge under oath,
and Chambers's shifting accounts had put Nixon's ally in hot water.
Indeed, a federal grand jury in New York appeared headed toward a perjury
indictment of Chambers. Hiss was on the verge of exoneration. Nixon faced a
political calamity that could have driven the young congressman from the
Then, in November 1948, reversing prior assertions that he had never
received classified papers from Hiss, Chambers began claiming that he had
recovered secret State Department documents which Hiss had allegedly given
Chambers as part of a spy ring.
On Dec. 2, Chambers led HUAC investigators to a hollowed-out pumpkin on
his farm in Maryland where he had stashed several rolls of microfilm.
Nixon, who was on a Caribbean vacation, dramatically returned to Washington
to star in committee hearings, which included public appeals to the grand
jury to indict Hiss, not Chambers.
With the grand jury's term scheduled to expire and without time for
forensics on the newly discovered documents, the grand jury voted narrowly
to do as Nixon proposed. Hiss was indicted for perjury and Chambers was
spared. Nixon's career skyrocketed.
No Gentlemanly Gloves
Twenty-three years later, Nixon referred to that crisis in explaining to
Haldeman and Kissinger how one played to win. "If I were called before a
grand jury in New York [in 1948] and told to give up the fucking papers to
the grand jury, I [would have] refused," Nixon declared in 1971.
"I said I will not give up [Chambers's] papers to the Department of
Justice because they're out to clear Hiss. I played it in the press like a
mask. I leaked out the papers. I leaked everything, I mean, everything that
I could. I leaked out the testimony. I had Hiss convicted before he ever
got to the grand jury.
"And then when the grand jury got there, the Justice Department trying
desperately to clear him and couldn't do it. The grand jury indicted him.
... Now, why would I do that? I did that because I knew I was fighting
people who had power. ... Now, how do you fight this [Ellsberg case]? You
can't fight this with gentlemanly gloves. ... We'll kill these sons of
Nixon then referred to an obscure White House official named Cooke who had
given Ellsberg some papers when Ellsberg worked at the Rand Corp. "I want
to get him [Cooke] killed," Nixon said. "Let him get in the papers and deny
it. ... Get a story out and get one to a reporter who will use it. Give
them the facts and we will kill him in the press. Isn't that clear? And I
play it gloves off. Now, Goddammit, get going on it."
One of Nixon's anti-Semitic schemes was to rev up HUAC's successor, a House
subcommittee on internal security and feed it some Jewish suspect. "Don't
you see what a marvelous opportunity for the committee," Nixon said on July
2, 1971. "They can really take this and go. And make speeches about the spy
ring. ... But you know what's going to charge up an audience. Jesus Christ,
they'll be hanging from the rafters ... Going after all these Jews. Just
find one that is a Jew, will you."
Bumbling Into Watergate
In the months that followed, Nixon's men did "play it gloves off." Under
Nixon's direct supervision, a Plumbers unit was recruited to dig up dirt on
Ellsberg and others. White House burglars broke into the office of Ellsberg's
psychiatrist. Then, expanding the operation, Nixon's intelligence team
began scouring for intelligence about leading Democrats, with bugs placed
on phones at DNC headquarters at the Watergate.
The operation blew up on June 17, 1972, with the arrest of five White House
burglars inside the DNC offices. As the tapes make clear, Nixon immediately
took charge of the cover-up: issuing orders, brainstorming P.R. strategies
and trying to blackmail Democrats with threats of embarrassing disclosures.
One of Nixon's recurring threats was to reveal that President Johnson
supposedly had ordered the bugging of the Nixon campaign in 1968. The
threat was dropped only after Nixon's subordinates concluded that Nixon did
not have his facts straight and that the disclosure could be a two-edged
The 1968 bugging issue revolved around a Republican initiative to undermine
Johnson's Paris peace talks that could have ended the Vietnam War and
brought home 500,000 American soldiers then fighting in Indochina. The
Nixon-Agnew campaign, however, feared that this "October Surprise" would
catapult Vice President Humphrey to victory and again deny Nixon the White
According to Seymour Hersh's 1983 book, The Price of Power,
Kissinger learned of Johnson's peace plans and warned the Nixon-Agnew
campaign. "It is certain," Hersh wrote, "that the Nixon campaign, alerted
by Kissinger to the impending success of the peace talks, was able to get
a series of messages to the Thieu government making it clear that a Nixon
presidency would have different views on the peace negotiations."
The chief emissary was Anna Chennault, an anti-communist Chinese leader who
was working with the Nixon-Agnew campaign. Hersh quoted one former Johnson
Cabinet official as stating that the U.S. intelligence "agencies had caught
on that Chennault was the go-between between Nixon and his people and
President [Nguyen van] Thieu in Saigon. ... The idea was to bring things
to a stop in Paris and prevent any show of progress."
In her autobiography, The Education of Anna, Chennault acknowledged
that she was the courier. She quoted Nixon aide John Mitchell as calling
her a few days before the 1968 election and telling her: "I'm speaking on
behalf of Mr. Nixon. It's very important that our Vietnamese friends
understand our Republican position and I hope you have made that clear to
NPR's Daniel Schorr added fresh details in The Washington Post's Outlook
section [May 28, 1995]. Schorr cited decoded cables which U.S. intelligence
had intercepted from the South Vietnamese embassy in Washington.
On Oct. 23, 1968, Ambassador Bui Dhien cabled Saigon with the message that
"many Republican friends have contacted me and encouraged me to stand firm."
On Oct. 27, he wrote, "The longer the present situation continues, the more
favorable for us. ... I am regularly in touch with the Nixon entourage."
On Nov. 2, Thieu withdrew from his tentative agreement to sit down with the
Viet Cong at the Paris peace talks, killing Johnson's last hope for a
settlement of the war. A late Humphrey surge fell short and Nixon won a
narrow election victory.
In The Price of Power, Hersh quoted Chennault as saying that in
1969, Mitchell and Nixon urged her to keep quiet about her mission, which
could have implicated them in an act close to treason. As the war dragged
on for another four years, tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers died, as did
hundreds of thousands of Indochinese.
But in 1972, with Nixon obsessed with justifying the Watergate bugging, he
referred back to the peace talk gambit. He claimed that he was told by FBI
director J. Edgar Hoover that Johnson had ordered the bugging of a Nixon
campaign plane to ascertain who was undermining the Paris peace talks.
On July 1, 1972, White House aide Charles Colson touched off Nixon's musings
by noting that a newspaper column claimed that the Democrats had bugged
Chennault's telephones in 1968. Nixon pounced on Colson's remark,
indicating that he was aware that the alleged wiretaps targeted the GOP
sabotage of the Paris peace talks.
"Oh," Nixon responded, "in '68, they bugged our phones too."
Colson: "And that this was ordered by Johnson."
Nixon: "That's right"
Colson: "And done through the FBI. My God, if we ever did anything like
that you'd have the ..."
Nixon: "Yes. For example, why didn't we bug McGovern, because after all
he's affecting the peace negotiations?"
Nixon: "That would be exactly the same thing."
Nixon's complaint about Johnson bugging "our phones" in 1968 became a
refrain as the Watergate scandal unfolded. Nixon wanted to use that
information to pressure Johnson and Humphrey into twisting Democratic arms
so the Watergate investigations would be stopped.
On Jan. 8, 1973, Nixon urged Haldeman to plant a story about the 1968
bugging in the Washington Star. "You don't really have to have
hard evidence, Bob," Nixon told Haldeman. "You're not trying to take this
to court. All you have to do is to have it out, just put it out as
authority, and the press will write the Goddamn story, and the Star will
run it now."
Haldeman, however, insisted on checking the facts. In The Haldeman
Diaries, published in 1994, Haldeman included an entry dated Jan. 12,
1973, which contains his book's only deletion for national security.
"I talked to Mitchell on the phone," Haldeman wrote, "and he said [FBI
official Cartha] DeLoach had told him he was up to date on the thing. ...
A Star reporter was making an inquiry in the last week or so, and
LBJ got very hot and called Deke [DeLoach's nickname], and said to him that
if the Nixon people are going to play with this, that he would release
[deleted material -- national security], saying that our side was asking
that certain things be done. ... DeLoach took this as a direct threat from
Johnson. ... As he [DeLoach] recalls it, bugging was requested on the
planes, but was turned down, and all they did was check the phone calls,
and put a tap on the Dragon Lady [Anna Chennault]."
Ten days later, on Jan. 22, 1973, Johnson died of a heart attack. Haldeman
apparently shelved the 1968 bugging ruse as a non-starter. After 18 more
months of writhing and wriggling, Nixon was forced by the courts to
relinquish a few tapes containing damning evidence against him -- and he
resigned on Aug. 9, 1974.
Keeping a Hand In
In disgrace, Nixon retreated to his estate at San Clemente, where he began
a long campaign to rebuild his reputation and gain recognition as a
respected elder statesman. But Nixon never did stop scheming, nor did his
As Nixon battled to keep the rest of his White House tapes secret, his
allies accused the "liberal press" and other enemies of pulling off a dirty
trick with Watergate. Conservatives in the CIA bristled against other
Watergate-inspired investigations in the mid-1970s which uncovered CIA
domestic spying and more criminal activities.
By the late 1970s, conservatives were mounting a determined
counter-offensive, with millions of dollars pouring in from conservative
U.S. foundations and right-wing organizations abroad. The right argued that
the Soviet Union was rapidly expanding its power, while the United States
was in decline. The holding of 52 American hostages in Iran in 1979-80 was
a case in point.
In spring 1980, with another presidential campaign in full swing, Nixon
also was active again. He was in touch with ex-CIA officers who were
plotting an independent strategy for dealing with the Iran crisis. One of
those ex-officers, Myles Copeland, told me that Nixon and Kissinger
received copies of a plan drafted by these officers, including legendary
CIA spies Kermit and Archibald Roosevelt.
"Now I'm not at liberty to say what reaction, if any, ex-President Nixon
took, but he certainly had a copy of this," Copeland said in a videotaped
interview in 1990. "We [also] sent one to Henry Kissinger. ... So we had
these informal relationships where the little closed circle of people who
were a), looking forward to a Republican president within a short while, and
b), who were absolutely trustworthy and who understood all these inner
workings of the international game board." [See Trick or Treason.]
By summer 1980, upset over President Carter's failed Iranian rescue
operation, Nixon reportedly was itching for a more direct role. According
to a 1989 article in the London Sunday Telegraph, Nixon met in
late July 1980 in England with Alan Bristow, a helicopter specialist with
close ties to the British Special Air Services, SAS, a clandestine military
arm of British intelligence.
Sunday Telegraph reporter Simon O'Dwyer-Russell had interviewed
Bristow who described Nixon's detailed interest in a possible second rescue
attempt. When I contacted O'Dwyer-Russell, he added that Bristow said an
angry Nixon paced the floor and fumed about Carter's ineptness.
When I asked Copeland about this possible second rescue, he said Nixon
concluded that there was no need for such an operation because the hostages
would be released after the November election. "Nixon ... knew that all we
had to do was wait until the election came, and they were going to get them
out," Copeland said. "The intelligence community certainly had some
understanding with somebody in Iran in authority. ... We had word [from
Iran] that 'don't worry. As long as Carter wouldn't get credit for getting
these people out, as soon as Reagan came in, the Iranians would be happy
enough to wash their hands of this'."
Carter did fail to win freedom for the hostages who were released
immediately after Reagan's inauguration on Jan. 20, 1981. However,
precisely what happened with the so-called 1980 October Surprise story
would never be told. By the late 1980s, when those allegations surfaced,
conservatives had built a powerful political/media machine that could shut
down any more Watergate-style inquiries.
The Clinton Olive Branch
Indeed, this conservative machine outlasted the Reagan-Bush era and turned
offensive once President Clinton took office. Ironically, in early 1993,
Clinton extended an olive branch to the godfather of the Republican dirty
tricks machine, Richard Nixon. Clinton invited the aging Nixon to a public
meeting at the White House, an honor that neither Ronald Reagan nor George
Bush had extended.
"Clinton added impetus not only to the reexamination of Nixon's career but
to his relevance as a historical dramatist," wrote a Nixon aide named
Monica Crowley who chronicled the last years of Nixon's life in a 1996
book, Nixon Off the Record. "He [Nixon] wielded the most influence
when he advised his successors, and of those successors, he advised Bill
Clinton the most extensively."
Still, Nixon remained a Republican partisan. Even as Clinton was welcoming
Nixon into the White House, Nixon was scheming with Sen. Bob Dole and
others on how to destroy the Democratic president. Nixon hoped that the
Whitewater controversy could bring down Clinton to balance the scales for
On April 13, 1994, four days before the stroke that would kill him, Nixon
told Crowley, "Our people must not be afraid to grab this thing and shake
all of the evidence loose. Watergate was wrong; Whitewater is wrong. I paid
the price; Clinton should pay the price. Our people shouldn't let this
issue go down. They mustn't let it sink."
Two weeks later at Nixon's funeral, Clinton praised the ex-president and
glossed over the crimes that had forced Nixon from office. "May the day of
judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career
come to a close," Clinton stated.
Perhaps, with the release of the new Watergate tapes and a clearer view of
Nixon's corrosive political operations, that fuller assessment now might
Nixonisms: From Alger Hiss to Janet Reno
In recent years, several books have recounted intimate and often bizarre
conversations with Richard Nixon either from audio tapes or contemporaneous
notes. Except for the first quote from Whitaker Chambers's autobiography,
the following Nixonisms were culled from The Haldeman Diaries by
Nixon's White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman; Stanley I. Kutler's
Abuse of Power; and Nixon Off the Record by Monica
In the 1940s, Whitaker Chambers fondly recalled Nixon's visits to
Chambers's Maryland farm: "I have a vivid picture of him, in the blackest
hours of the Hiss case, standing by the barn and saying in his quietly
savage way (he is the kindest of men): 'If the American people understood
the real character of Alger Hiss, they would boil him in oil.'"
March 28, 1969, "P [for president] had me in quite a while ... wanting to
take stronger action on obscenity. ... Decided he'd go to a play in New
York where they take off clothes and get up and walk out, to dramatize his
Nov. 14, 1969, during candle-light anti-Vietnam War march: "P came in
about 9:00 [p.m.], stayed until 11:00. Interested in whole process. Had
helpful ideas like using helicopters to blow their candles out." [Haldeman]
July 25, 1970, about Nixon's anger at NBC anchorman Chet Huntley,
"important to destroy him for effect on all other commentators." [Haldeman]
Sept. 12, 1970, "Has several plots he wants hatched. One to infiltrate
the John Gardner 'Common Cause' deal and needle them and try to push them
to left. ... Next, a front that sounds like SDS to support the Democratic
candidates and praise their liberal records, etc, publicize their 'bad'
quotes in guise of praise. Give the senators a 'radiclib'
Oct. 29, 1970, discussing a demonstration outside a Nixon speech in
Chicago: "We wanted some confrontation and there were no hecklers in the
hall, so we stalled departure a little so they could zero in outside, and
they sure did. Before getting in car, P stood up and gave the V signs,
which made them mad." [Haldeman]
June 23, 1971, "Now that we have our man in the IRS, he wants to pull the
Clark Clifford file and also all the top supporters of the doves, the full
list with a full field audit, and see what we can make of it on analysis."
Sept. 13, 1971, upset that the IRS had questioned evangelist Billy Graham,
Nixon tells Haldeman: "Please, get me the names of the Jews, you know, the
big Jewish contributors to the Democrats. ... Could we please investigate
some of the cocksuckers?" [Kutler]
Jan. 28, 1972, "He's decided to take the hard line against integration, and
wanted me to get the line out on Vietnam that the critics are now
'consciously aiding and abetting the enemy'." [Haldeman]
Sept. 7, 1972, explaining that he wants a Secret Service detail to tail
Sen. Edward Kennedy under the guise of protecting him, Nixon asks for "one
[large detail] that can cover him round the clock, every place he goes.
... I want it to be damn clear that he requested it, he requested it,
because of threats, that sonofabitch, I want to make sure that he is
Oct. 16, 1972, four months after the Watergate break-in, Nixon tells his
staff: "We're running a high-road campaign. ... And we're up against the
dirtiest, libelous, most libelous, slanderous attack on the President in
the history of American politics." [Kutler]
Oct. 25, 1972, "We're going to screw them [The Washington Post]
another way. They don't really realize how rough I can play. I've been
such a nice guy around here a lot of times, and I always play
[unintelligible] on a hard-hitting basis. But when I start, I will kill
them. There's no question about it. They should give some thought to
taking on the guy that went into Cambodia and Laos, ran the Cambodian
bombing campaign." [Kutler]
April 22, 1973, when Haldeman was facing Watergate pressure, Nixon
advised: "Just remember you're doing the right thing. That's what I used
to think when I killed some innocent children in Hanoi." [Haldeman]
Feb. 20, 1992, commenting on secret meetings with Republican leaders in the
18 years since his resignation: "I'm tired of being taken for granted. They
all come to me on the sly when they are in big trouble -- well, no more. No
more going in the back door of the White House -- middle of the night --
under the cloak-of-darkness crap. Either they want me or they don't."
Jan. 29, 1993, arguing that Bob Dole "is the last great hope for the party
in this century," Nixon adds, "But taking the long view, ... this party has
lost it. We need to appeal to young people, or we are going to end up being
the party of the crazies." [Crowley]
March 11, 1993, describing Clinton after their White House get-together,
"Clinton is very earthy. He cursed -- 'asshole,' 'son of a bitch,'
'bastard' -- you know. He's a very straightforward conversationalist."
Jan. 4, 1994, Nixon's view of Attorney General Janet Reno: "a partisan
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